Sunday, 11 September 2011

Ten Years of 9/11 Culture

Today marks ten years since the September 11th terrorist attacks, and plenty of writers have tried to come to terms with the event, with varying degrees of success. We've seen everyone from literary authors, to screenwriters and comic book writers try to mark their territory. Here we're going to look at a few of these and ask ourselves what makes the good ones good, and why did the bad ones fail?

Martin Amis was quite upfront regarding September 11th, trying to coin a new term for the period of time in his Age of Horrorism article and writing a book of short stories and essays about the topic, the dire tome 'The Second Plane'. He also famously abandoned a post-9/11 novel in which the protagonist was an extremist Muslim attempting to unleash mass rape upon America. Quite. However, this was not his biggest shortcoming in the intervening years. His worst atrocity can be found in 'The Second Plane' in a short story entitled 'The Last Days of Muhammed Atta' which looks at the attacks from the point of view of one of the terrorists.

Chris Morris famous tore Amis a new one regarding that particular story here and it's a very apt criticism. But it asks a bigger question of us as writers. Can we begin to look at events in this manner, take a real life subject, a monster of a subject and try and reduce him to some bizzare caricature as Amis did, especially so soon after an event? Amis aims for satire, but misses the mark and the result is clumsy. We'll get to Morris later in this post but it's important to note that 'Last Days...' is not a new idea, Chaplin famously lampooned Hitler in 1940 - but within the jokes was a serious point, which allowed the film to end like this

Amis ends 'Last Days...' with lines such as "The core reason was of course all the killing." and a poor attempt to psychosexualise the protagonist.

Brian K Vaughan examined the events of the day through the eyes of a superhero in the first volume of Ex Machina. In the world of Machina, the current mayor of New York City is Mitchell Hundred, who used to parade around as superhero 'The Great Machine'. His actions on September 11th managed to save one of the towers of the World Trade Centre, and allowed him to win a landslide victory. The images of him soaring towards the second plane are dynamic and the afterimage of the lonely tower are a smart, poignant move. The series is a subtle blend of The West Wing and Superman and worth picking up.

Of course, Vaughan wasn't the only comic book writer to tackle the events, and credit should go to J. Michael Straczyinsky for writing possibly the worst emotional response in Spiderman #36 in which Spiderman and various heroes/villains descend on the wreckage of the WTC to help civilians. Little is said about these heroes not stepping sooner to help and the worst offender is this particular panel which depicts Doctor Doom crying. I'll pop that down again.




As Stan Lee wrote, 'nuff said.

The Sopranos got things spot on in the fourth, fifth and sixth season, with episodes in which Tony tries to help out the FBI by reporting some of his more ethnic colleagues to the authorities when he gets particularly paranoid. There's also this scene which is genius. Elsewhere, Spooks fumbled through an episode about suicide bombing evangelical christians.

Elsewhere, in novels, Jonathan Safran Foer wrote the beautiful Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in which a child who lost his father in the attacks goes on search across New York for a lock to open with a key he was left. It's a modern fairy-tale and brilliantly written with a hell of an emotional punch to end.

In film, United 93 was a stunning film, and the complete polar opposite of World Trade Centre, Reign Over Me, Remember Me, and a small handful of emotionally hamfisted attempts at expressing themselves. Perhaps the most impressive film I found was a documentary on Channel 4, The 9/11 Faker telling the story of Tania Head who pretended to be a 9/11 widow. It's currently unavailable online, but if you find it, watch it.

It's always interesting to watch pop culture take hold of an event like this and use their respective mediums to express their views, and to talk about the events. In conclusion, don't read that issue of Spiderman. Please.

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